A couple days ago, during a visit to relentlessly sunny LA, I indulged in a mid-afternoon hike atop Hollywood Hills. Despite its aversion to seasonal regularity, Los Angeles is still slave to time and my 4pm jaunt up the mountain gave way to breezy dusk. With purple-pink haze blanketing the endless stretch of urban-suburbia, the Hollywood sign to my left and a desert moon gaining contrast above, a feeling of serene knowing overtook me. Compounded by an i-pod soundtrack of late pseudo-profound 1990’s jams, the blockbuster familiarity became further entrenched, as I, the “lone hiker,” zoomed in on my picture-perfect moment.
“Picturesque” has an almost historical meaning for those who grow up Angeleno, their high schools and playgrounds iconic movie sets, celebrities enmeshed in the daily coffee routine, and rites of passage grounded in 2-hour films known to all. Perhaps, with a superimposed backdrop, it seems inevitable that a culture / religion of “me” creeps with apparent ubiquity. Or more specifically, that dull moments of everyday life seem ripe for big screen drama.
Before the gongs of protest chime, let me be the first to admit that one did not have to grow up in LA to live life as if the world, or at least a set of cameras, revolved around her. Social media technology has surely enhanced this (e.g. Twitter followers), as has the rise of consumer power in controlling brands. Further, anonymity has lost its place with our constant digital connectivity. Despite these trends, egoism has been fully entrenched in the human condition for ages, or at least as long as Darwinian survival of the fittest governed our actions. Luckily, though, we have biological checks and balances in place – namely, children – to ensure something productive gets done in this world.
With the theme of “me” pervasive in most secular contexts and religions (more likely monotheistic), structures are at play to codify its importance. Los Angeles, and in particular Hollywood, has successfully capitalized here.
We are eager to criticize Hollywood’s efforts as degradation of culture. The image of blank faces consuming pop culture shows, or worse reality television (gasp), conjures up feelings of waste and a sense that as viewers, we are passively living life vicariously through 30 minute cluster-bombs of comedy and drama. We condemn the producers for feeding us such guilty pleasures, for making our kids dumber and for engendering sloth en masse.
But maybe, rather than buying into the passive view model, perhaps watching the drama of others unfold help cement myths of “me” in the viewer – by validating past experiences, explaining (albeit in superficial ways) the perspectives of others, or maybe just giving the viewer a sense of relief that someone else’s life is more pathetic than their own. The shows and films provide snippets of reference to help us gauge the range between normalcy and the absurd, understand social norms and reflect upon our existences. In this way, Hollywood functions like most art forms but with broader appeal.
“The Business” is perhaps so successful because it creates a symbiotic relationship with a core tenet of the human condition. It feeds off our collective identities for material, and in turn, sustains us with constant reminders of just how special we all are – unless you watch Planet Earth and are brutally reminded that “me” is pretty insignificant. Until that becomes the norm, though, we can continue to feel cushy in our bubbles of fame anywhere from Hollywood Hills to our office desks.